Credit: Joyce Nicholls Credit: Joyce Nicholls

Review: Fire in the Machine and DenMarked at Battersea Arts Centre

Written for Everything Theatre

Seeing a show at Battersea Arts Centre is always a bit of an adventure: you know it’s going to be interesting, but you can never be quite sure what exactly you’re going to get. This was much the same for my evening there last night, of which I only knew it would involve karaoke and hip hop Hamlet.

My plus one and I started off with Fire in the Machine, a new show by London youth collective Sounds Like Chaos. The best description I can think of is ‘Japanese TV show meets vaudeville’, an hour’s worth of singing, dancing, glittery insanity. I loved every minute of it. Under strict leadership of ‘The Machine’, performers entertain us with mime, audience participatory singing and fashion advice. But behind the bubbly, fluorescent exterior lies something darker, an anxiety about what it means to be(come) an adult in a world of zero hour contracts, burnouts and FOMO. Despite all its garishness, the result is a show that’s simple and eloquent. The next time you hear a baby boomer complaining about feckless youths, this is where you need to send them.  

It’s hard to think of a sharper contrast than that with DenMarked, a solo show by theatre maker and musician Conrad Murray. In just over an hour, Murray takes us from his childhood on the estate, via his struggles to fit in at his posh new performing arts school, to the panic attack he’s having about interviewing for a teaching job at an even posher school. Interspersed with these autobiographical scenes are fragments of text from Hamlet, as Murray links his own life experiences to those of the Danish prince. Addressing topics like bullying and child abuse, DenMarked does not make for comfortable viewing. Murray inserts plenty of light-hearted touches, however; the audience unanimously roars with laughter when he describes how he wants to emulate his heavily tattooed friend Alan, only to reveal a tiny scribble on his upper arm. Between the varieties in tone and the song, performed live with a mix of beat boxing, guitar and some clever looping, there’s more than enough happening to keep the audience involved. The only weakness is the addition of the bits from Hamlet, which are meant to tie the show together: taken out of the context of the play, they often feel misplaced. The similarities between Hamlet’s and Murray’s situation are reduced to only the broadest of strokes, such as ‘father’ or ‘madness’, without doing justice to the nuances of either’s situation.

I very much enjoyed both shows, different as they were, although the evening was slightly marred by some organisational issues. The first show went in late, which had me stressing out about making it out in time for the second one. In hindsight, this was completely unnecessary, since that started half an hour late. It happens, of course, but it seems that a place like the BAC should know better than to leave their audience standing around like that without giving them any information. Nevertheless, the quality of both shows more than made up for this slight hiccup. I would recommend you keep an eye out for these performers: I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of them.

Fire in the Machine has now finished its run at Battersea Arts Centre. DenMarked is playing until 11 March 2017